Hildegard of Bingen: Composer and Saint

Was Hildegard of Bingen a saint? One might think so from the way this 12th-century abbess wrote music. She compiled her Symphonia harmoniae caelestium revelationum (“The Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations”) over the course of a long life that creatively did not begin until she was in her forties (b. 1098). In 1141, she was suddenly relieved of the almost constant illnesses that had afflicted her during her lifetime. Her pain was replaced by a series of religious visions which she recorded in her book, Scivias (“Know the Ways”). In 1147, Pope Eugenius III was so impressed by the excerpts he heard that he acknowledged her as a true visionary. He was not alone in his admiration. Emperors, kings, archbishops, and abbots sought her advice. She corresponded with such notables as Friedrich Barbarossa and Bernard of Clairvaux. Many of her letters survive, as do two books on natural history and medicine, Physica and Cause et cure.

The Symphonia is a collection of 77 of Hildegard’s poems that she set to music, intended for use at her convent. The songs praise the saints, martyrs, apostles, and virtues. The largest single number, 15, are addressed to Mary, and 13 to Saint Ursula.

The music is monodic, with soaring melodies often set over an instrumental drone. It is not plainchant, though it may sound as such to our ears. It is much more melodically free and idiosyncratic, and does not follow any of the specific melodic formulae used in chant. Some of the vocal leaps are extraordinary for their time, and powerfully expressive. Hildegard’s originality captures a spontaneity and freshness in responding to God and His ways. It is mystical, contemplative, peaceful, and rhapsodic. The name she chose for these works speaks of her expressive intention— the original unity of creation. It is a symphony, arising from the order of one’s own soul to the heavenly order. When portraying the disturber of that harmony and unity in her highly original morality play, Ordo virtutum (“The Order of the Virtues”), she does not allow the devil to sing—he barks and yelps. Music is divine and should express its origin. “So should we,” wrote Hildegard, “acknowledging God in the faith, praise Him eternally in song, and in joyful sound without end.” Whittaker Chambers said that “the Gothic cathedral is a prayerful uprush of stone…. it seems to float in the air.” This music is the prayerful uprush of sound as it leaps up into the Gothic vaults it was meant to fill. It, too, floats in the air, not in a pre-Raphaelite fantasy, not as an all-too-precious objet d’art, but as a projectile of faith aimed at its Origin.

Of course, Hildegard is being hyped today as a proto-feminist, a liberated woman, and seer. Pleased with the prominence of this remarkable person, the feminists may be less enthused when they read how Hildegard thought of herself. She wrote, “God moves where He wills, and not to the glory of earthly man. I am ever filled with fear and trembling. I have no confidence in my own capacities—I reach out my hand to God that He may carry me along as a feather is borne weightlessly by the wind.” Just a feather on the breath of God. Hildegard lived to the remarkable age of 81 (d. 1179). In the 13th century, Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV proposed her canonization, followed later by Clement V and John XXII, all to no avail. She awaits a contemporary champion.

Is Hildegard of Bingen a saint? Four popes could not make her so; but listen: “With a great desire I have desired to come to you and rest with you in the marriage of Heaven, running to you by a new path as the clouds course in the purest air like sapphire.” Could our Lord refuse to receive one so anxious to be with Him, and who found such original ways to express that desire?

Fortunately, Hildegard’s “new path” can be heard in a number of excellent recordings of her music. Sequentia, an ensemble for medieval music, has specialized in Hildegard’s music and has two releases from the 1980s to its credit. The first recording was of the Ordo virtutum, in a riveting performance of the first-ever morality play (in fact, written 100 years before the next morality play). There soon followed Sequentia’s CD of selections from Symphonia. The group’s performances have been exemplary. (There is also a beautiful Hyperion recording (CDA66039) of Hildegard’s music that won the 1983 Gramophone Record Award as the best of the year in the Early Music category.) Canticles of Ecstasy, a new CD on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (05472 77320 2), offers more selections from Symphonia and, not surprisingly, the performances by Sequentia are fervent, inspiring, and lovely. There is only one reservation regarding the sound quality. St. Pantaleon in Cologne, where this recording was made, sounds as if a subway runs under it because there is a muffled, but detectable rumble in a number of sections that can be heard when listening with good headphones. It was not a problem when listening with speakers.

Consumer Warning: Angel records has marketed an atrocity called, “Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen.” The new-age style arrangements and contemporary rhythms with which the producers saw fit to disfigure this music already sound anachronistic next to the integrity of Hildegard’s originals. The vandals who made this have, in the words of another critic, put ketchup on caviar. Avoid it, and go for the real thing.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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